Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thankful

We have a very precise Thanksgiving tradition in our family – Nancy cooks; I eat. In fact I have already finished my first sweet potato pie, and it is only 10:30 AM. Nancy watches the parades, and I, well, don’t really do anything – until this year. I decided to run in a 5K this morning that benefits the local rescue mission in Roanoke.

I woke up today to an exceptional morning. It was supposed to be overcast and raining, but instead the sun is shining brightly and the temperature is already in the upper 60’s. It is a beautiful fall morning. I initially guessed that the race crowd would be small with the forecast of rain. Instead, there were 3200 runners and walkers in only the 2nd annual drumstick dash.

As we waited for the start of the race I was mildly apprehensive. My running and training have been minimal lately. I knew that I would turn into a competitive freak once the gun sounded, and my body would not be able to do what my mind would suggest. I successfully completed the 5K with my worst race time ever (24 mins.), but somehow it didn’t matter today.

For the first time that I can remember in a race, I didn’t care about my time. My mind and heart were truly thankful. I thought about the rescue mission, and the faces of the people I see at the mission. I was overwhelmed with thoughts of how incredibly blessed I am. God has blessed me with incomparable friends and family. He sent His one and only Son for me. What more could I possibly want or need?

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever. Ps. 118:1

Today, I am thankful. Tomorrow, I think I’ll get back to training and running.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Reaper

Last night as I was channel surfing I watched part of a new show called the Reaper. I don’t usually get into sci-fi (well not since Quantum Leap), but this sitcom was mildly entertaining. The main character, Sam (Bret Harrison), was having a conversation with the Devil (Ray Wise), and the Devil was really upset. It was the evening before Halloween, and to Sam’s surprise the Devil said that Halloween was the worst day of the year for him. The Devil said that it was “the commercialization of evil.” He said that no one was afraid of him and that it was just all fun and games now.

I couldn’t help but laugh at the wisdom behind the comedy. Halloween has become a fun time for many kids. At Oakland we are planning to give out lots of candy tonight. As I drove onto our campus this morning, I had a momentary rush of excitement as I thought about thousands of kids in Roanoke flooding the streets (and coming to our event) as Power Rangers and Princesses. I can’t help but think that tonight is going to be lots of fun. Too bad I don’t have my Superman outfit anymore!

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Casper the friendly atheist

Allow me to put on my educational hat for a review. I freely admit that it is much easier to critique a book than it is to write one.

Book review: Jim and Casper Go to Church

I recently read a new book, Jim and Casper Go to Church, and it has sparked my thinking related to church growth. Jim (a former Pentecostal preacher) hired Casper (a self-proclaimed atheist) to attend church services with him and give his impressions of the services. The premise of the book was irresistible to me as I wish to see the church from the blind side of Johari’s window. I enjoyed the case studies in this book, but I think the authors went too far with their applications.

Jim and Matt’s book was worth the read for me because it made me think, but not for the reasons the authors intended. All truth claims must be evaluated before acceptance into the core of church life. I think that this book fails to provide compelling evidence of truth for most churches.

From a research standpoint the book says more than it is able to say. The authors exhort all Christian churches to do a number of things based on their observations in a few churches. The application of qualitative research (by definition) is limited to the cases included in the research. It is the rough equivalent of observing a handful of mushrooms in the wild and concluding that all mushrooms are perilous.

My greatest concern from the book is that the authors make truth claims while telling the Church that there is no Truth. Readers are supposed to accept absolute truth claims from two authors (neither of which qualify as experts outside of their own life experience) who argue that Christians should stop making absolute truth claims. (Yes, that is a self-contradiction.)

One would expect Matt (as an atheist) to assert that Christians have no right to claim Truth, but why does Jim champion the same cause? I believe that Jim honestly thinks that he is doing churches a favor by telling us that we are offending atheists by claiming that we have Truth.

The simple suggestion of this book is that if we are going to be effective in reaching people like Matt Casper, then we must abandon our truth claim rhetoric in our church services. The end result would be church services where no truth claims are made, and the only rallying force would be to meet humanitarian needs. This book is about a hundred years too late. Mainstream, liberal churches have been using this approach for a century now. (I’m sorry. I couldn’t resist.)

I appreciate attempts to help churches become more effective in reaching people with the Gospel. I hope that we continue to try to understand different perspectives of unique individuals. Perhaps we can soften our approach, but now is not the time to soften our message.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Do good people go to heaven?

When I was on a date in high school one night, I slid off a slippery road and got my car stuck in a muddy ditch. These were the days before cell phones (except for KITT on Knight Rider), and I wasn’t sure how I would get my car back on the road. Within minutes a guy came driving by on a tractor (thank God for growing up in the country), and asked if I needed help. He quickly pulled me out of the ditch and went on his way barely giving me time to say thanks. My car wasn’t damaged and a simple visit to the car wash concealed all evidence that I was driving too fast on a wet road. This experience and many others have taught me that there are a lot of good people in this world.

With so many good people in the world, I am faced with the question of whether or not good people go to heaven. Over the years I have encountered several well intentioned people who have insisted that they simply don’t need Jesus. Most of these people believe in God and believe that God will give them a fair shake when they meet him at the “Pearly Gates.” After all, think about how many country music songs talk about going to heaven with no mention of Jesus or the cross. ;-)

Perhaps, the harder question is, “do good people go to hell?” In Matthew 19 (also in Luke and Mark) we read a story about a rich young ruler coming to Jesus. The man asked Jesus what he needed to do in order to “obtain eternal life” (19:16). The man insisted that he had kept all the commandments of the Bible since his childhood (19:20) and reasoned that he must be good enough for heaven. Jesus told him that he only lacked one thing. If he would give up all of his possessions and follow Him, then he would be good enough for heaven. The man went away “grieving” (19:22). The encounter with Jesus seems to indicate that even attempting to follow the Bible isn’t enough to merit a ticket to heaven. Jesus told the man that he must follow Him in order to find eternal life.

Ultimately, the claim that I am good enough to get into heaven on my own is a denial of the work of Jesus on the cross. If we are capable of getting into heaven without personal faith in Christ, then Jesus didn’t have to die for us. He could have simply told us how to get to heaven through the back door. There is no back door (Matthew 22:10-14). Hours before Jesus went to the cross, he was confronted with the question of the necessity of the cross. He asked if there was another way to reconcile people to the Father and give them access to heaven. The answer Jesus received was that He must go to the cross if mankind were to have any hope of eternal life with God.

And He went a little beyond them, and fell on His face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.” Mathew 26:39


I must admit that it is not easy to come to Christ. Following Christ means acknowledging that I am flawed beyond the hope of repair on my own. I can’t read enough self help books to right my wrongs. I can’t find the answers by looking inside myself (contra Oprah). I can’t do enough good things to outweigh the bad in my life. My only chance for heaven is that God will be gracious and merciful.

The cross is the eternal nexus of God’s grace and mercy. Forgiveness, grace and mercy are found at the cross, if I will lay down my pride and begin following Christ. Good people do go to heaven - those who are good as a result of God's grace.

I say all of this with a great sense of humility. I do not pretend to have all the answers to the world’s problems. I only know that I once thought that I was good enough without Jesus. I have found that I am not as good as I thought I was. My only hope is the cross.

If you have experienced a time when you realized you simply weren’t good enough on your own for eternal life, please share your story with us.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Why people don't go to church

As a pastor, one of the consuming questions with which I wrestle is “Why don’t people go to church?” In particular, the question is “Why don’t people come to my church?” If you doubt that people are opinionated, ask this question to a group of church people on a Wednesday night. I’ve studied church growth for several years, and I have a number of opinions about the matter myself. But, I wonder if we are asking the right question to the wrong people.

Several researchers in the last few years have begun asking people who don’t attend church why they don’t attend church, and the answers are interesting. George Barna asked this question and provided the answers in his book, Grow Your Church from the Outside In. The top five reasons that people gave for not attending church comprise 83% of the reasons why people don’t come to church.

1. No time; schedule conflicts; working 26%
2. Not interested; nothing to offer; no reason 16%
3. Don’t know 15%
4. My beliefs are different than the church’s 14%
5. Don’t believe in organized religion/
Don’t need to worship at a church 12%

1. No time. Churches can offer alternatives for working people, and we should do so to the extent that our resources allow. For the majority of people who gave/give this answer, I think it is a poor excuse. It seems to me that most of us do what we want to do. I know that I do. I make time for the things that are important to me. Sometimes I say that I don’t have time when I really mean I have time, but not for whatever it is you are asking me to do. I think that most of the people who gave this answer really mean #2, but they were just trying to be polite.

2. Not interested. This answer is the answer that keeps me up at night. Why aren’t people interested in church? I believe that the answers to this question are the keys for the church reaching the unchurched in our communities. Jesus is the most exciting person who has ever graced this earth. How could anyone not be interested in Jesus? Perhaps the problem is that people aren’t finding Jesus in church.

3. Don’t know. Fifteen percent of all people surveyed said that they don’t know why they don’t attend church. It sounds to me like these people just might come if we invite them to do so. They don’t really have a reason not to come.

4. Different beliefs. The beliefs of a church are non-negotiable. But, I wonder how many of the people who gave this answer really know what the church believes. Perhaps people know what we are against, but do they know what we are for? Most churches are “for” some pretty awesome stuff.

5. Don’t need organized religion/can worship anywhere. I believe that many people who give this answer are only fooling themselves. From a theological perspective we need each other. It is impossible to accomplish the will of God for our lives in isolation. God calls us to lead others to faith in Him and to teach others how to follow Him as we do so ourselves. How can we possibly do these things without some type of organization? The problem stems from a “me” mentality, but worship is not about me.

Sadly, some people are in the ranks of those who don't attend church because they have experienced great pain in a local church. We are sometimes brutal when it comes to our own people. I speak from personal experience. I have wounded others. If you are in these ranks because of past pain, you have my sympathy. Will you try to trust again? You may find more than you ever imagined at the feet of Jesus.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Got Purpose?

I love watching nature shows on Animal Planet, the Discovery Channel, the National Geographic Channel, etc. Shark Week sans the evolutionary mumbo jumbo is usually quite exhilarating. It is simply fascinating to learn the intricate details of thousands of animals and to bask in the awe of God’s creativity and wisdom. Recently, I learned that if you hit a shark on the nose (snout) there is a good chance it will leave you alone. I’m hoping I never get a chance to test that theory.

With all of the amazing animals that God has created, I think the most amazing are the Homo sapiens. We have the ability to study other animals and influence the lives of all of the other animals. We have great capacity to think (notice I said capacity) and ponder the great questions of existence. I mean, you never see a depressed shark moping around wondering if he will ever be able to program his remote control.

Ultimately, we want to know what the meaning of life is. We want to know why we are here and what the purpose of life is. Rick Warren’s success with The Purpose Driven Life demonstrates our quest for meaning and purpose, and this quest is not unique to believers. Most of us want our lives to matter. We want to know that what we do makes a difference.

God created us in His image, which makes us unique creatures. Because we bear God’s image we are able to exert some control over the direction of our lives. We certainly cannot control catastrophic events, but we have great freedom to shape who we want to be and what we will spend our days doing.

Shaping who we want to be is about living life with purpose. It is about determining the principles that will guide our lives and establish who we are at our core. Living with purpose is about having a gameplan for our life and deciding what we want our life to be to the extent that it is within our ability to determine. The time to set a strategy is before the whistle blows, and we find ourselves in the middle of tempting circumstances and alluring diversions.

So, what will we spend our days doing? If you listen to the talking heads on TV discussing football games (Go Bears!), you are likely to hear them discussing the execution of strategy or the lack thereof. And, the reason is clear – to be successful our plans must be carried out. Executing our plans means that we are living life on purpose. We are following our principles. We keep doing the right things (Lombardi) so that in the end we will win. A win for me means that in the end I find that my life really did matter.

Anyone interested in some saltwater snorkeling?

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Hypocrisy Card

Several years ago I served as pastor of a church in Alabama. I was energetic and frequently visited people door-to-door style like a candy bar salesman. During one such encounter a husband and wife (Let’s call them Bob and Susan.) invited me into their home. The couple’s house was adjacent to our church property, and from their living room window you could see right into my church office. I was exuberant as I presented my pitch to the party. After a few minutes of my exquisite presentation, I extended the invitation for the couple to join us for worship.

As I paused and pondered the precision of my performance, Bob quickly enlightened me concerning the dysfunctional nature of our church. Bob said that they no longer attended church (our church in particular) because people in the church are hypocrites. He cited numerous examples of hypocrisy including Sunday school teachers who frequented bars. He saw people from our church at these polluted places that he also patronized for…uhm… research purposes. Bob ended our encounter by exclaiming, “What right does the church (Scotty) have to tell me what I should do?”

He had played the hypocrisy card. I was baffled and befuddled. It was official. We were Pharisees – legalistic Pharisees.

Jesus reserved some of His harshest words for religious leaders. Matthew 23:27 says, "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean.”

It seems that many today feel that we (the church) don’t have the right to say anything regarding their lifestyles. We have no right to judge. I mean doesn’t the Bible say that somewhere (yeah, Matthew 7:1). Why are people so turned off by what churches have to say?

In their book, Why Churches Die, Brunson and Caner note that “legalists use a telling standard for holiness – themselves. Not Christ, but themselves. They will rebuke you immediately when you fall short of the standard they themselves have set for holiness. They feel superior to you because they stand closest to their own standard” (122).

Are we modern day Pharisees? Could it be that people reject our judgment of them because we use ourselves as the standard for holiness rather than Christ? Are we more interested in teaching people to become like us than we are helping them to be transformed into the likeness of Christ?

Does the Church have a right to tell people what to do?

Perhaps the answer lies in reading what follows the admonition not to judge people. Matthew 7:3-5 says the following: 3“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

The right to speak to people must be earned. People must know that we genuinely care about them. Too often we appoint ourselves as ambassadors to the world to tell people how they should live even though we haven’t earned the right to do so. We must be honest about our own shortcomings. Our goal isn’t to make people look like us. Our goal is to bring people into the presence of Christ. He does a pretty good job of cleaning us up.

As you may have noticed, I like to use a thesaurus. It makes me seem so much more intelligent than I am. But let’s be honest. You knew that I was putting on airs at the first occurrence of alliteration. Is their a sin of alliteration? Maybe I’ll save that for another blog – “Hypocritical Homiletics and Habitual Hang-ups.” In the meantime, I think I have some work to do on me.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Trash day

My wife, Nancy, has creative ways of reminding me to do things that I already know that I need to do. I assure her that I am not a kid, but my actions sometimes prove otherwise. I often forget to do little things that I really should remember.

I have struggled for years with remembering trash day. Our trash is collected on Thursdays in Roanoke County, and I typically forget to either move our trash can to the curb or I forget to retrieve the receptacle after our trash has been collected. This past week my neighbor returned my trash can for me, and I only noticed it because it was turned differently than I normally have it.

Nancy usually reminds me by simply telling me on Wednesday nights when we get home that I need to move the trash can. Sometimes she calls me from work on Thursday mornings to jog my memory. Occasionally I will get an email from her reminding me about trash day, and she has even sent me an e-card so that I won’t forget the all important day. Why do I forget something so simple?

I have many excuses for my forgetfulness. I’m not old enough to have “senior moments” but, I do have some good reasons. For six years I was accustomed to putting out the trash on Mondays (although I forgot then too) when we lived in Indiana. Second, Thursday isn’t a good day for me – it’s my day off. Thirdly (and most importantly), I believe there might be a conspiracy against me by the county. A few weeks ago, I managed to remember trash day. I was so proud of myself. I noticed that I was the first one on my street to put out my garbage can. I later discovered (because another neighbor noticed my confused look while I was staring at a full garbage can) that trash is not collected on holidays. It’s awful suspicious that everyone else knew, but I didn’t. How many people are in on this scam anyway?

I guess that most of us need to be reminded of things. I just wish I didn’t have to look so foolish in the process.

Peter wrote in 2 Peter 1:12, “I plan to keep on reminding you of these things—even though you already know them and are standing firm in the truth.”

In ministry I find that I am often reminding people of “simple” things that they have already heard.

  • Jesus paid it all.
  • All to Him I owe.
  • Sin had left a crimson stain.
  • He washed it white as snow.

Some things are worth repeating. Now what day is it?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

mental

Several years ago I developed a crazy notion to start running. I was in my mid to late-twenties, and I discovered that my once athletic body was now more suited for Kevin James look-a-like contests. I could think of many reasons why I wasn’t taking care of myself – grad school, multiple jobs, Seinfeld reruns, etc. But, I knew that I had to do something.

Running had been viewed as a necessary evil to accomplish my goals. As a teenager, I ran for conditioning for other sports. Running was effective, but not truly enjoyed as a sport unto itself. I decided to resume this tortuous practice and redeem my athleticism.

I soon discovered the horror of my physical neglect. After strapping on my running shoes and running shorts and shirt, I hit the open road ready to reclaim my honor. Within a few minutes my heart was pounding, and I was breathing harder than I could ever remember. What had happened to that strong, all-district middle linebacker who could play an entire game without exhaustion? Where was that 19 year old bodybuilder with 2% body fat? He was gone, and he had the chest pains to prove it.

Over the next few days and weeks, I continued to run but with great difficultly. It would be months before I could run a mile without stopping and being completely exhausted. Every time I ran something hurt. As long as the same body part didn’t hurt three days in a row, I kept running.

It would be a year before my conditioning had improved enough to run three miles. My body was beginning to change. I was beginning to see glimpses of a trained athlete. The pain was finally producing progress.

As a follower of Christ, I have also experienced similar pains in my Christian growth. I remember earlier days in my spiritual journey when I would read my Bible and pray for hours on end. What had happened to that once vibrant disciple?

Spiritual growth also requires careful attention for me. My spiritual muscles need to be challenged.

Physical exercise has some value, but spiritual exercise is much more important, for it promises a reward in both this life and the next. 1 Timothy 4:8